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Secret Agent Man

Zero-Budget Movies: Are They a Ticket to Sundance or a Waste of Time?

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Zero-Budget Movies: Are They a Ticket to Sundance or a Waste of Time?
We live in a world where anyone with a digital camera and some decent software can create an actual movie. Filmmakers used to be the only artists who couldn't afford their own tools, but that's no longer true. Now anyone can make a film. And that's the problem. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you know how to do it. Too many aspiring producers and directors mistake access for ability. As a result, most of these small productions are nothing more than glorified home movies that will never reach a mass audience.

Then again, you never know…

Micro-budget movies like "Monsters" and "Another Earth" display genuine talent on every level. As a result, those films have broken free of their self-imposed limitations. The filmmakers are now part of the mainstream, and the actors are well on their way to successful careers. But these projects are the exception, not the rule.

So how do you tell the difference? Let's say an actor in your scene study class has raised $100,000 to make his own movie. He offers you the lead. You're excited, but how can you predict whether the finished film will be worth your time? For me, it's all about the material. If it's not on the page, it ain't gonna be onscreen. I need to feel excited when I'm done reading the script, like I've just discovered a hidden treasure.

I have a young client named Rona. Last year she booked the lead in three little movies she tracked down on her own. They were all being produced under a SAG Ultra Low Budget contract, which means Rona would receive a hundred bucks a day, before taxes and commission.

I advised her to pass. The scripts were awful. There was nothing remotely original about them. All three stories focused on young people sitting around doing nothing, talking about the future. Who cares? Been there, done that. Rona listened to my objections but decided to sign up anyway.

As of now, all three movies have been rejected by every festival on this planet and a few that aren't. Worse, during the time she was filming, Rona missed several auditions for projects that would have advanced her career and put some real money in her pocket.

The award-winning "Tiny Furniture" is about a recent college grad who returns home while she tries to figure out what to do with her life. I would argue that there's nothing remotely original about that idea either. But the movie works because writer-director Lena Dunham has an exciting voice that makes the material fresh.

Here's another consideration: Can the script be turned into a film with almost no money? Be wary if it's effects-heavy or has a million locations. A promising story can be ruined if the filmmakers don't have enough cash to put it onscreen.

Here's an example. I just saw a zero-budget movie about assistants trying to make it in Hollywood. The writing was sharp and the actors were excellent, but the movie can't find a distributor. Why? Because shows like "Entourage" have conditioned us to expect a certain level of glitz in stories about Hollywood, and the filmmakers didn't have enough money to capture that world. As a result, the movie felt false—and everyone passed.

Actors deal with a ton of rejection, so it's exciting when someone finally offers you a film, even a small one. But you have to look before you leap. Read the script with an objective eye. Are you thrilled about the project or are you just psyched about being in a movie, any movie?

Your talent is worth more than just money, so you need to be selective about who gets to use it. If you don't hold yourself to a high standard, who will?

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